It is a nondescript lorry that sets out from a dock near Heathrow airport west of London. Murphy Shipping & Commercial Services Ltd. usually transports oil-drilling equipment, but on this day they are hauling "charity goods" free of charge. The freight is books. Fifty-five boxes of books. Two weeks and 3,000 miles later, Murphy's overland trek will have transported the books through France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Georgia, and an undisclosed area near the Caspian Sea.
Their arrival marks the beginning of Caucasus Literature Company, the newest bookstore to be launched by British-based CLC International. Such ventures blend evangelism with social enterprise in remote countries. In this case, countries long dominated by Islamic teaching and Soviet-era politics. Not so long ago, a journey like this seemed more the stuff of a middle passage than a routine one.
A truckload of Christian tomes and tracts could only have been samizdat, underground contraband press, in these reaches of the former Soviet Union, even as recently as a few years ago. Classics by Oswald Chambers, Roy Hession, and A.W. Tozer-the kind of apologetics CLC now regularly ships to Central Asia-were unthinkable. Importing such works required endless clandestine maneuvering and meant costs that were unimaginably high to most evangelistic organizations, not to mention outright danger. Now the only stipulation comes from the Western groups; most ask that exact locations not be disclosed because they are concerned about worker safety in these mostly unevangelized, predominantly Muslim areas.
The turnaround in book distribution, particularly the growing availability of Christian writing by Western theologians, is a leading indicator of cultural change. Despite political and economic turmoil, good ideas are catching on.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn traced his Christian conversion and his incriminating gulag stories on handwritten pages stashed separately at friends' houses, so certain was he that Soviet authorities would one day come after his works in progress.
Less known but no less dramatic, a Latvian bookbinder named Maris Dzelzs used his job repairing books for the state as a venture in self-publishing.
"One of the most popular anti-God books the government put out was written by a group of people, including a scientist and an astronaut, telling why they did not believe in God," he recalls. "When we got an issue to mend, I bound in a chapter of my testimony, telling why I did believe in God."
His bindery received shipments containing hundreds of books to repair. He says he regularly replaced loose pages "with writing about Jesus." He says he knew his communist bosses would not look over all the repairs. The KGB once questioned him, but he was never caught.
The need for that kind of stealth is over. Discovering the place for redemptive writing in once-closed countries, however, is a painstaking process. American publishers and mission organizations that unloaded books and other material on post-Cold War Europe and Russia have left Christians in a kind of welfare dependency. Launching in-country publishing houses and bookstores is harder work.
CLC takes the grassroots approach. Of 750 missionaries worldwide, 650 are nationals working in their own countries. Usually they succeed with start-up help from overseas missionaries familiar with book distribution. Even so, a bookstore in Kyrgyzstan took two years to get off the ground. Missionaries provided the expertise, while locals renovated the facilities, a rundown apartment fronting a main square in a downtown area. A young Kyrgyzstan couple, new Christians, keep shop. What slows things down? The vacant steppes of Central Asia are a first obstacle. Air transport is unreliable; overland is time consuming.
More pronounced are cultural and political obstacles. CLC began bookstores earlier this year in areas historically controlled by the Turkish empire before the Communist era. Muslims dominate the area, and Christians make up less than 2 percent of the population. Soviet holdovers in local authority make even the simplest transactions, like renting space, difficult.
Lending cohesion to scattered local enterprises is an informal association of evangelical publishing houses called International Literature Associates (ILA). ILA experts from Britain to Bratislava now work together, consulting with groups like CLC and hoping to establish self-supporting Christian publishing houses across Central and Eastern Europe, with distribution points as well. Along the way, according to ILA associate Marsh Moyle, the group hopes to set a standard for Christian business practices and ministry just as it promotes a biblical worldview through literature.
Results are mixed. In Bulgaria, New Man, a publishing house and ILA affiliate, got off to a rough start. First, legal problems arose because Bulgaria did not have a mechanism for registering nonprofits. Then the publishing house overestimated its market, leading to early financial losses. Both trouble spots have evened out, however, and New Man has published 84 titles in less than eight years.
In the last two years, according to a recent ILA report, grants from overseas have been put toward "capital for growth, rather than subsidies for losses," in a progression the publishers hope will take them from grants to loans to self-sufficiency. The ILA report states that annual income from Central European operations has topped $1.1 million.
The report takes note of two areas of concern. First, "personal responsibility ... was not a lesson we learned under communism." Bad habits have to be undone on a case-by-case basis in order for publishers to flourish. Second, "growth of the work in Russia causes us concern that we may attract criminal attention as we reach out to non-Christian markets." Russia's ubiquitous mafia follows the scent of success.
Those who have observed the booming trade say one of the biggest obstacles facing the small presses is Western charity.
"In the world economy, the marketing of goods below cost is called 'dumping,' and it sometimes leads to legal action and international trade wars," notes Russia scholar Mark Elliott. "But in Christian circles, this well-intentioned but short-sighted practice is mistakenly thought to be commendable charity."
Gifts of literature may be in order in some circumstances, says Mr. Elliott, "but when they constitute routine practice in Christian outreach, they seriously undermine the possibility of independent, indigenous Christian publishing."
"Although I wouldn't fault someone for giving away a Bible or book," said Christian Literature Crusade's Lewis Codington, "we also seek to develop long-term self-sufficiency in our teams. We believe that selling-versus giving them away-causes the recipient to value them more. This also generates income for us, which allows us to cover our costs (which in most countries includes salaries-required by governments where we work, even though we consider our workers to be missionaries), as well as to continue and expand the work by being able to purchase more books."
What will expand those opportunities most rapidly are growing political and economic freedoms. Baltic states like Latvia that were reluctant under Moscow's communist thumb opened up more quickly than Central Asia. Freedom for Mr. Dzelzs led to a nice career move. In 1995, he organized the Latvian printing of Intimate Friendship with God by Joy Dawson. Other books on discipleship have rolled from his presses since then, organized as a joint effort involving Youth With a Mission and distributed through its training center in Talsi, where Mr. Dzelzs has served as national director. All by itself, his enterprise represents a long journey from not-so-bygone days of smuggling his testimony into print.